One of the perks of doing this gig for a long time is seeing names pop up you haven't seen in some time. With a busy two days of the MTG Arena Qualifier Weekend and Modern events across Europe, that's exactly the kind of week it's been for me: Magic does nostalgia like none other.
To the average tournament watcher, players come and go. There are those who grace multiple Top 8s over a few short years, or those legends of the game who are instantly recognizable to even casual fans, but for the most part players come and go. A career with a handful of Top 8 appearances across high-level events or even Pro Tours can be an extremely successful one, but that doesn't necessarily translate to recognizance at-large.
For longtime Magic players, life passes in sets—not years—and the comforting nostalgia burns itself into your brain to be reawakened a decade or two later by a casual draft common from your first set.
It's similar for those of us who work in coverage, with a bit of a wrinkle. When we set out to cover a tournament—whether it's a Pro Tour, the World Championship or a local PTQ—the goal is straightforward: tell the story of the moment. We spend hours dissecting their deck, their moves, their mindset, and then when they win or make the Top 8 we pester them a bunch more with photos and interviews and more interviews and another set of photos (because the confetti cannon didn't fire just right the first time). We ask them to reflect on their entire life and then on the spot relate it to their 14th sideboard card that clinched the match.
When we document the story of the tournament for history—for our community, for you, and for me—those stories are never just about the perfect metagame tech.
So, Magic years pass in sets and stories for me. One of the cool things about that is that sometimes stories you heard long ago come back around, now with a new chapter. We collect names in this business, and I still remember some classic Pro Tour lore that's at best gameplay-adjacent.
All of which is to say: I love that as we're returning to the plane that predated the Pro Tour we're also seeing a return to competitive play from some of the Pro Tour's best names of the last few decades, including a former national champion returning to the top of the format.
Let's start with Dominaria United. From the gripping Magic story that told the tale of the new crew of the Weatherlight and the invasion of Phyrexians, to the twists on familiar characters, to the Legends cards available in the first run of collector boosters, this set is all about nostalgia.
The Merfolk that started it all, and the one that kickstarted my Magic career when it led me to my first major Top 8 a little more than a decade ago.
We've come a long way since then.
I'll leave the decklists to Frank but suffice to say I'm extremely excited to cast the best
I may even run into a former Belgian national champion who has resurfaced with a dominant performance in the MTG Arena Qualifier Weekend that will send him to Arena Championship 1, taking place September 24–25.
Did the Arena thing! pic.twitter.com/UBCnA8Owk8— Pascal Vieren (@VierenPascal) August 21, 2022
Kids and Cards and Pascal Vieren
When Pascal Vieren first announced himself to the Magic world by winning Belgian Nationals in 2008, he was a 20-year-old chasing a childhood dream wherever it might lead him. Pascal Vieren was introduced to Magic by his brother Peter eight years earlier, and he vividly remembered diving into the game and watching fellow Belgian Geoffrey Siron sweep his way to victory at Pro Tour London in 2005—a story resonated with the young Vieren.
"Peter and I started dreaming of playing a Pro Tour one day, and we began playing some PTQs," he recalled. "In 2006, I played Nationals for the first time and I loved the competitive experience. That same year I started university and moved to Ghent, where I started drafting with some of the best Belgian players like Marijn Lybaert and Christophe Gregoir, who also became some of my best friends."
Siron's story brought Vieren to competitive Magic, and before long he was "living the dream" by playing the game, seeing the world, and riding the wave to whatever tournament came next. It was a whirlwind of success.
"In 2008, I qualified for my first Pro Tour, and then I won Nationals a couple of months later," he explained. "At that point, playing Magic and testing meant also just hanging out with my friends, travelling the world together and having a great time."
In the ensuing years, Vieren firmly established himself as one of Europe's top players. His travel schedule slowed down when his first child, Dante, was born but when Vieren's brother Peter earned the captaincy of the Belgian team for the World Magic Cup in 2016, he redoubled his efforts and took his career to new heights.
"Playing in the World Magic Cup with Peter sounded awesome, so I focused on qualifying," he said. "We ended up finishing second in the WMC, and that kickstarted years more of competitive play for me, with my biggest accomplishment being third place at Pro Tour Bilbao, becoming a platinum pro and winning Grand Prix Prague. Competitive Magic meant I was spending more time travelling with my friends again."
Vieren is underselling his accomplishments quite a bit there. He earned a total of five Grand Prix Top 8 finishes and held his own in an epic five-game semifinal match against Gerry Thompson at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan in Bilbao in 2018. It's more impressive considering the balance he was striking between raising a family and traveling the world as a sponsored pro and one of Europe's best.
That's a story you won't find in Top 8 decklists, but it's the kind that's the day-in, day-out lifeblood of what makes coverage—what makes Magic—work. As the world changed along with the landscape of competitive Magic, a lot of familiar faces from the Pro Tour found themselves in changing and challenging circumstances. So I was thrilled to see Vieren's name cross my desk in the same week that we saw nearly 500 players compete in Modern at the Grand Open Qualifier in Copenhagen, with PT champion Joel Larsson and 10-time GP Top 8 competitor Christoffer Larsen both making the Top 8 only to fall to eventual winner Gianluca Boaretto.
Now Vieren is adding a new chapter to a familiar story, and it's one that was a first to me at least.
"I've been playing MTG Arena since launch but nowadays I only play on mobile, including the Qualifier Weekend," he explained. "We had Dante in 2011. In 2015 and 2016, Oscar and Helena were born. After my year as a platinum pro, Hector was born in 2020 and Zeno in 2021. So I've been spending quite some time with my family. I mostly play MTG Arena when the kids are asleep. Being able to play on my own time in the Arena Open and qualifiers really helps."
From five GP Top 8s to five kids—now ages 11, 7, 6, 2, and —Vieren has found a way to keep Magic a part of his life through it all.
"Teaching the older kids how to play has been great," he gushed. "Sharing something that has been such a big part of my life with them is awesome. We mostly play Commander, but we'll see if any of them ever want to play competitively!"
The perspective has completely changed how the father of five approaches Magic tournaments.
"I play a lot of MTG Arena, but I started viewing it more a hobby again," he said. "I do play about every Arena Open and qualifier but I also started playing rugby again, which I had stopped doing during my competitive career as I didn't really have time to do both. Winning the Qualifier Weekend feels great, but it's not a goal by itself. Doing well in the Arena Championship is the goal. Viewing it like that, it compares to how winning a paper PTQ used to feel. And that's a great feeling!"
Late at night, on the phone, juggling diapers and practices and PTQs—none of it stopped Vieren from putting together a 7-win run in the Alchemy format. He went a perfect 14-0 in games played on Day 2 with a retooled Cabaretti Revels combo deck.
"I was sent a link to a Jund combo deck featuring Goblin Trapfinder, Racketeer Boss, Ominous Traveler,
Vieren's perfect run through the Qualifier Weekend suggests he's on to something, which comes as no surprise for those who followed Vieren's career over the years. With his breakthrough weekend, Vieren was excited about the ways he can continue his competitive career even if it comes on a cellphone while changing a baby's diaper.
"Thinking about it, the impact Magic has had on my life is huge," Vieren said. "As always I like to mention my wife Charlotte—she supports me in everything I do and makes it possible for me to play competitively.
"I believe winning this Qualifier could mean a new start to playing competitively. With five kids, especially the young one, playing paper tournaments isn't as easy to organize as it used to be. As such, I haven't played any qualifiers for the European Regionals, but winning the Arena Qualifier still gives me a road to competitive play."
On the MTG Arena front, players can follow in Vieren's footsteps by earning a spot in a Qualifier Weekend via ranked play, and a strong weekend run that looks anything like Vieren's will give players the opportunity to qualify for both the Arena Championship and tabletop Pro Tours—beginning with September's Qualifier Weekend.
For tabletop play, Regional Championship seats are available to earn in events across the world. The biggest tournament this weekend is the NRG Series $20k Showdown in St. Louis, MO, USA (Live coverage of this Legacy/Modern/Pioneer team event will be broadcast at twitch.tv/NRGSeries). The F2F Modern Open is being played in Halifax, Canada, while the Champions Cup Premium Qualifier in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan will be decided by Pioneer.
Just one final tip from me from years of names and stories: never underestimate Merfolk.